“But What About the White Poor?” Why Black Lives Matter is for you too.
State sanctioned violence against Black people is as imbedded in American culture as apple pie. Another Black man dying in police custody flashes across the nightly news. Then everyone goes back to normal. But maybe not this time. Something might be changing. People are paying attention to Black people and our suffering this time, more than ever.
However, I hear from well-meaning White people who want to help say, “But what about all of the white poor people who are hurt by the police?”
We are at a juxtaposition where the world watched the lynching of George Floyd and said “Enough!” Black. Lives. Matter.
Lynchings of Black Americans have occurred for over 400 years directly and complicity by law enforcement and citizens alike. Now they’re just on camera and it’s impossible to look away.
Ahmaud Arbery. Tamir Rice. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Laquan McDonald. They were all Black and killed by police or citizens acting as such. There are countless more.
Yet, again, from many well-meaning White people I hear, “Yes that’s horrible what happens to Black people. But what about us? We are brutalized by the police too!” I especially hear this in the public defender community.
My initial response to this is telling them to join the Black Lives Matter Movement. We are fighting for you too.
When Donald Trump was asked in a CBS News interview why African Americans are still dying at the hands of law enforcement after George Floyd, Donald Trump replied: “So are White people. Even more White people are killed by the police.”
That doesn’t make anyone feel better Mr. President. You just acknowledged that the police are doing a lot of killing. It has to stop for all people.
Let’s be clear, more White people are killed by the police because there are more White people in the United States, however; based on many reports, Black men are up to 3 times more likely to be killed by the police than White men[i]. The president’s comments and the data prove that police brutality is a human rights issue for all people.
However, we are focusing on Black lives right now for good reason. Black men are killed by the police at a tragically higher rate than anyone else in America. 1 in 1000 Black men can expect to be killed by the police in this country.[ii]
Just like in an ER, we must stop the bleeding of the most critically injured first, before they bleed out. Black people are bleeding out.
As public defenders, the courtroom is our ER, and for too long, Black men have been arriving to court DOA (Dead on Arrival), figuratively and literally at the hands of the police.
I lead a public defender office in a county that largely defends the White poor. I see the injustices my clients face because they are poor, addicted to drugs or mentally ill, and struggling for housing. They steal to eat. I see the dog bites from out of control K9 units. My heart hurts for them. I fight for them with everything in me and they matter. Saying Black lives matter is not saying theirs do not, and all lives matter is just not true until Black lives are included in the all.
The issues that distinguish police brutality against Black Americans from White Americans is biological and historical: White people are not targeted by police because they were born white. Police departments are not full of implicit bias against the White race, and never have been. White people are not killed at a disproportionate rate by police like Black people are.
Additionally, White people’s skin color does not make their lives harder or less valued now, or historically the way Black skin has for Black people by the American government, and that transcends to the police departments. That’s the rub.
By law, Black people were brutally enslaved in America from 1619 and sold like cattle at the auction block until 1865. Then, brutally enforced by law to live segregated from Whites until 1965. Hundreds of Blacks were massacred in Black Wall St. in Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida. The Tuskegee Experiment was conducted on Black men by the American government from 1932-1972. Look it up. All of these human rights violations were enforced explicitly or complicity by the American government and law enforcement. The above examples are just a microcosm of the pain and torture that Black Americans have endured for centuries at the hand of the state.
So, the Black experience in America has been brutally, intentionally and legally different from the mainstream White experience and the White poor. The early “watch systems” that evolved into what we know as the police had the power to enforce “laws” that were actually human rights violations for centuries and did so. Biased attitudes that perpetuated the culture of police violence towards people of color did not just go away as laws changed. They were passed down through the government, through families, and through police departments.
And so here we are:
Police are not killing our White brothers and sisters in the streets of America at the same rate as they kill Black men. Do most White mothers fear that their sons, fathers, husbands and brothers will be murdered by police like Black mothers do? Like I do?
So when I hear “but what about all of the poor White people who are hurt by the police” what else do I say? I say largely the same things I do regarding how to respond when Black people are hurt by law enforcement. I encourage people to continue to fight for them as hard as they always have and harder. Create a movement against police violence toward the poor, especially the rural poor, or join the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve got you.
But I also say, that no racial group in this country have been treated and are treated the way your Black brothers and sisters have been by the American government which includes law enforcement. Therefore, we need to raise our awareness of these injustices and challenge them now, because they are multi-generational, multi centurial, and more deadly for Black people.
So think about joining this movement for Black Lives. It won’t take away from the good work you’re already doing for all of your clients. What does it mean to join the movement for Black Lives as a public defender? It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything that organization stands for or officially join the organization. It means as a public defender, educate yourself, prepare yourself, and go to battle for human rights. Call out prosecutors for striking black jurors, call out cops for stopping Black people for being Black. Call out excessive force. Call out cross racial misidentification and hire that eyewitness expert on race. Challenge that all white jury pool. Call out state sanctioned murder. Fight against black kids disproportionately being certified as adults in the criminal legal system. Protest. Advocate against crime bills that you know will hurt Blacks and the entire poor population. Show America that state sanctioned violence will no longer be tolerated. Organize. Advocate for your colleagues of color and be an ally. Create an inclusive culture at work. Promote and create leadership opportunities for deserving people of color and hire with diversity in mind because we need other perspectives than our own. Mentor. Ask questions when you don’t know the answer. Challenge the status quo.
You can use your law license to shout Black Lives Matter. Now I challenge you to go do it.